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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

James Clay

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 1 Jun
James Clay
Sounds like … classic roots rock bearing strong resemblances to Counting Crows, Blues Traveler, Todd Agnew, and Eric ClaptonAt a glance … a terrific debut with thoughtful Christian lyrics, strong musicianship, and an enjoyably gritty acoustic rock soundTrack ListingI Still BelieveFranklin ParkOn Your KneesJudah's SongOne at a TimeAnywayTo Be with YouWicked WomanSend SalvationSabotageMillstones

At only the age of 22, James Clay has already paid his dues. The Virginia native started life normally, only to get whisked away by his mother at the age of 10 to join a religious cult in Georgia. Good came of it, however, in that it forced Clay to read God's Word in search of guidance and answers. Later, the family moved to Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, where he took a series of odd jobs while in high school to provide for his family. After high school, he married his sweetheart and started a family of his own.

In the midst of all that, Clay somehow found the time to learn guitar, write his own songs, and join a local blues band. Upon gaining a local following, he joined his church's worship team at his pastor's invitation. It was there that Christian veteran Mylon LeFevre heard him and encouraged him to record a demo. That recording found its way into the hands of Peter Furler (Newsboys), who immediately signed Clay to Inpop to release his self-titled debut.

Produced by still another Christian music veteran, Phil Madeira, James Clay is straight up roots rock, though it starts off a little unusually with the album's only cover song-a rocking rendition of The Call's classic "I Still Believe," made famous by Russ Taff. Clay's version is great, faithful to both, yet updated for today's listeners. The strange part is that it sounds different from the other tracks, and it doesn't really reveal who Clay is or what he's capable of. Maybe it would have served the artist better to place it later in the album?

Regardless, it isn't long before you hear Clay's own songs, which resembles Blues Traveler, Todd Agnew, and particularly Counting Crows with the guitar solos, acoustic rock arrangements, and the Adam Duritz-styled vocals. All the proof you need is heard in the first single, "Franklin Park," which seems to merge the lyrics of "Round Here" with the music of "Mr. Jones." Drawing on his youth growing up in a trailer park, Clay introduces us to people in his community in sore need of Christ's love—it's fun and catchy, but also poignant and original.

The rest of the album is nearly as good, but three very different tracks stand out as highlights. The Counting Crows comparisons continue with the contemplative ballad "Anyway," a response to tragedy and darkness (such as 9/11) with faith and perseverance. Featuring duet vocals by Jill Paquette, you'll swear it's Duritz singing with Vanessa Carlton. The bluesy "Wicked Woman" rocks harder than Third Day, almost reminiscent of Glenn Kaiser's Rez Band days—inspired by Proverbs 5, it warns young men against sexual temptations. And then there's "Send Salvation," a terrific jam featuring Phil Keaggy's guitar work that's reminiscent of the bluesy reggae that Eric Clapton dabbled with in the '70s on songs like "I Shot the Sheriff."

Clay proves himself to be a direct songwriter with his words, never beating around the bush or writing on autopilot. "On Your Knees" is written from God's perspective to remind us to keep in regular contact with him: "I cannot take what you won't give/And cannot hear what you won't say/The lines are down from your heart to mine/It grieves my spirit when you won't pray." The powerful ballad "To Be with You" similarly uses the words of the Almighty to express his desire to build a relationship with each of us. "One at a Time" is a simpler rock ballad about God's call and love for each of us individually, while the hard-hitting finale "Millstones" warns about building kingdoms on anything other than the solid Rock—"What are we down here but a feather clinging to a stone?/Beneath the clouds and dust, mud and rust of everything we own."

James Clay's sound is not original or unique, but that doesn't matter when it's this good. He could use a couple more fast rockers or jam sessions on the album, but that's okay. What we have is an album of thoughtful songwriting, spiritual inspiration, solid musicianship, catchy melodies, and Clay's impressive vocals. There's simply not enough missing here to call it anything less than a strong debut, and plenty to name James Clay one of the best new artists of 2004.